Winter begins in December for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing cold nights and the return of one of the most famous constellations to our early evening skies: Orion the Hunter!
Did you know that there are two other objects in our skies that have phases like the Moon? They’re the inner planets, found between Earth and the Sun: Mercury and Venus. You can see their phases if you observe them through a telescope. Like our Moon, you can’t see the planets in their “new” phase, unless they are lined up perfectly between us Earthlings and the Sun. In the case of the Moon, this alignment results in a solar eclipse; in the case of Mercury and Venus, this results in a transit, where the small disc of the planet travels across the face of the Sun. Skywatchers are in for a treat this month, as Mercury transits the Sun the morning of November 11!
Most of the planets in our solar system are bright and easily spotted in our night skies. The exceptions are the ice giant planets: Uranus and Neptune. These worlds are so distant and dim that binoculars or telescopes are almost always needed to see them. A great time to search for Uranus is during its opposition on October 28, since the planet is up almost the entire night and at its brightest for the year.
Is the summer heat getting to you? Cool off overnight while spotting one of the solar system’s ice giants: Neptune! It’s the perfect way to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Voyager 2’s flyby.
Saturn is at opposition this month, beckoning to future explorers with its beautiful rings and varied, mysterious moons. The Moon prominently passes Saturn mid-month, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11!
Jupiter stakes its claim as the king of the planets in June, shining bright all night. Saturn trails behind Jupiter, and the Moon passes by both planets mid-month. Mercury puts on its best evening appearance in 2019 late in the month, outshining nearby Mars at sunset.
Late spring brings warmer nights, making it more comfortable to observe a good showing of the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. Skywatchers can also look for the delicate Coma Star Cluster, and spot the Moon on the anniversary of Apollo 10’s “test run” prior to the Moon landing in 1969.
April’s skies find Mars traveling between star clusters after sunset, and a great gathering of planets just before sunrise.
By David Prosper
The stars that make up the Winter Hexagon asterism are some of the brightest in the night sky and February evenings are a great time to enjoy their sparkly splendor. The Winter Hexagon is so large in size that the six stars that make up its points are also the brightest members of six different constellations, making the Hexagon a great starting point for learning the winter sky. Find the Hexagon by looking southeast after sunset and finding the bright red star that forms the “left shoulder” of the constellation Orion: Betelgeuse. You can think of Betelgeuse as the center of a large irregular clock, with the Winter Hexagon stars as the clock’s hour numbers. Move diagonally across Orion to spot its “right foot,” the bright star Rigel. Now move clockwise from Rigel to the brightest star in the night sky: Sirius in Canis Major. Continue ticking along clockwise to Procyon in Canis Minor and then towards Pollux, the brighter of the Gemini twins. Keep moving around the circuit to find Capella in Auriga, and finish at orange Aldebaran, the “eye” of the V-shaped face of Taurus the Bull.Continue reading
By David Prosper
Observers in the Americas are treated to an evening total lunar eclipse this month. Early risers can spot some striking morning conjunctions between Venus, Jupiter, and the Moon late in January.Continue reading